I am a young, black, woman…and people think that I am an intern,” says Hawa Keita, the new Executive Director of CEED Concordia.
At just 25 years old, Keita has managed to raise questions of disbelief in some and complete awe in others.
“I’m not something we see often,” she begins, [a CEO of a non-profit at 25], “even me, sometimes I’m like…really??”
Keita’s journey began on the yellow sand beaches of Senegal, where both her parents are from. After moving to France at the age of 6, Keita would often return to Senegal – sticking close to her roots. Through those trips, over the years, she developed a strong sense of familial bonding.
“Time spent with family will always be a part of my most memorable moments. This feeling of belonging to a big community and the solidarity amongst us whether someone is getting married or someone is just being born,” she says.
The disparity that Keita saw between the youth in France and those in Senegal, led her to pursue a career in commerce with a focus in finance. Her sole desire in so doing, was to combat the economic contrast that exists between said countries and others like them.
However, her path wasn’t an easy one. Having studied at the John Molson School of Business – Concordia University’s business division, Keita notes, “as diverse as Concordia is in terms of a university, many times I was the only black female student [in my department].”
Since preschool, Keita found herself to be part of a minority. Though her classes in University weren’t proving to be any different, Keita branched out and found her new community amongst the student associations.
“Out of the classroom I was able to socialize with so many people and it was not only limited to my classmates. I was able to meet people just like me,” she says.
While Keita was finding her footing in University by getting involved with like-minded student associations, she was also navigating the corporate world as a young, black, woman.
“When I was at Concordia, I used to do the co-op program. One semester out of two, I would be in the corporate world,” she begins. A wonderful opportunity – that allowed her to work in areas ranging from financial planning to portfolio management – quickly turned into life lessons for Keita. “Something I realized, every time I was the only black woman. There were black people, but I was the only black woman. That’s when you see when you’re in a workplace and there are some cultural differences, you feel it…alot.”
Whether she had to swallow her tongue when a new boss congratulated her white male co-worker on his new position but looked at her with brows furrowed surprised she got the same position or conceal her frustrations at the ignorance prevalent amongst her colleagues, Keita put her head down and got to work.
“For me, it’s very important to be open-minded. Some of my [former] colleagues have only been exposed to one culture – that’s all they know. They already have this preconceived notion of what someone who looks like me ‘should be like’…and part of my work is defying those stereotypes through the work I produce.”
Consistent hard work, opportunity, and the right timing has led Keita to her current position as Executive Director of CEED Concordia. “The program was founded in 2006 to send Canadian students on internships to Uganda, a country in East Africa. Presently, it’s almost 14 years old. What’s amazing about it is our cross cultural and experiential learning; Canadian and Ugandan students working on sustainable projects for the community.”
“The fact that its related to Africa, to my former university, and to youth empowerment – all of those things combined together is amazing,” says Keita. Though she didn’t study the stereotypical fields typically associated with such a position (ie. International Development or philanthropy classes), Keita believes that business can be applied anywhere, even for a non-profit organization. The only caveat? Follow the mission and vision.
Despite having left the corporate world, Keita finds that the same struggles have found her in this new position – and more intensely. “Even here in Uganda, they don’t necessarily try to know who I am, even if I tell them that I’m the Executive Director…. What’s funny is that it’s mainly from women like me, who don’t believe it to be possible.” To them, she’s too young.
Be it intentional or unintentional, direct or concealed, Keita is not letting the adversity get her down. “Something that I’ve realized,” she begins, “Is that people will take you seriously when they see results or [when they see] that you know what you’re talking about.”
With her big ambitions for the organization, Keita aims to walk the walk with class, sass, and a ‘lil pizazz. Since the NGO operates both in Montreal, Canada and Gulu, Uganda; Keita hopes to make an impact in both these areas – especially since Montreal has been so impactful for her.
“Being involved within the Senegalese community [in Montreal] has allowed me to learn a lot about Senegalese culture; it shows how diverse we are and is something truly magical.”
Keita will surely bring some of that magic to her new position. And for all other young, black, women in challenging surroundings, “ Whatever you do, be results oriented,” Keita says.
“Don’t take your situation as a curse,” she continues, “if you have to deal with discrimination, don’t victimize yourself. Prove what you can do instead of complaining.”
For this young, black, female CEO, the lessons may keep on coming, but as long as she has her solid community – which she intentionally builds amongst her family and friends – and her peace – which she finds through dancing and painting – nothing can truly phase her.
Hailing from West Africa, Josie Fomé was born in Cameroon and has lived in Canada for a decade. She has a B.A. in Communication Studies and a Gr.Dip. in Journalism. She has a passion for storytelling of all kinds, be it oral, written, or visual. She can often be found at the intersection of storytelling and accountability. She travels often, loves quality time with her loved ones, and asking thought-provoking questions.